What Is Vietnamese Nationalism?

What is nationalism, and how has it played a significant role in Vietnam's history...

Vietnam -- in nearly every regard it was the war that failed. It is not, however, the purpose of this article to recount America's failures in that Southeast Asian country, or the reasons behind them. It is instead, to discuss the question of whether or not the United States violated common tenants of international law by committing military forces to support one side in another nation's internal civil war. In short, we will discuss whether or not the war between North and South Vietnam was strictly a civil war, or a war of aggression conducted by the North against the South.

I intend to demonstrate in this article that South Vietnam possessed good and sound basis for its claim to independence from Hanoi, the capitol of North Vietnam. This being established, it will follow that the United States violated no aspect of international law in aiding Saigon, South Vietnam's capitol city. Indeed, Washington but supported one country in its efforts to repulse a foreign invasion of its borders.

Doc Lap, a word used to signify the Vietnamese spirit of independence, can be traced back to approximately 500 B.C. when the Nam, a southern subgroup of the Viet tribes living south of the Yangtz River began a southward exodus in an attempt to escape the armies of an expanding Chinese empire. The attempt failed. Eventually settling in the Red River Delta, the Vietnamese were conquered by 258 B.C. and placed under the direct administration of the Chinese Court. For the next 1,000 years, the Chinese endeavored to assimilate the Vietnamese race as they had, and would, many others. In Vietnam, however, the Chinese would fail.

There were a number of factors which contributed to China's failure: Geographic distance between the Red River Delta and the Chinese Court; contact, primarily through trade, which the Vietnamese enjoyed with other non-Chinese cultures, principally the Chams, the Cambodians, and with India and Indonesia. Probably, however, the greatest reason for China's failure to subdue the Vietnamese, and the one most pertinent to our subject, is that the Vietnamese had a prehistory long enough to enable them to develop their own distinctive ethnological features. In other words, the Vietnamese racial identity was strong enough to withstand a thousand years of foreign domination, suffering, in the process, only minimal cultural damage.

Toward the middle of the 10th century and the decline of the T'ang Dynasty, Chinese rule became virtually nonexistent in the outlying provinces. In this vacuum, Vietnam experienced a period of chaos during which local warlords battled among themselves for domination. In 1010 A.D., the Li Dynasty was founded, becoming Vietnam's first imperial family and central government. Quartered in Hanoi, the dynasty would survive for some two hundred years.

Despite its newly won independence from China, there was little change in the course of Vietnamese life. The imperial government reestablished a civil service system based on the Chinese classics and continued attempts to subdue rebellious warlords who protested the payment of any taxes and who refused to recognize any authority save their own.

The peasants too, lacked any feeling of loyalty toward the dynastic government. As in most feudal and agrarian societies, the peasant knew little of the world beyond the walls of his own village, and cared even less. He paid his taxes to the local warlord because he was forced to, and occasionally engaged in insurrection when the lord pushed him beyond the point of forbearance.

Vietnam, at this point, was a nation only in the lightest sense of the word. It possessed a government but no real subjects. For the Vietnamese did not recognize the Li Dynasty's right to govern. In fact, they did not even recognize themselves as a single nation. Being Vietnamese was more a racial identity than a national one. The typical Vietnamese identified with family and village and very little else.

The early 10th century found the Red River Delta a prosperous and growing region, rich in farmland and advantageously positioned for trade carried on with the rest of Indochina. Before the century's end, however, the region reached a point of over population. Faced with China to the north, the sea to the east, and mountains to the west, the Vietnamese began moving south in an exodus not wholly unlike our own country's westward expansion in the 19th century. This expansion lasted until the late 1700's.

Immediately to the south of the Red River Delta was the Kingdom of Champa, occupying a geographic area roughly equivalent to what the French would later call Annam. It was easily conquered by the Vietnamese who systematical set about settling the area, forcing the remnants of the Cham civilization into the mountains to the west. Further to the south lay the Mekong River Delta held, during this time frame, by the Kingdom of Cambodia. This area too, fell victim to the Vietnamese expansion.

Often, in history when a people experience such a period of migration, they experience also, a compromise of their culture as it is influenced by already existing indigenous cultures, by differences between old and new methods of food gathering brought about by a different climate and geography, and as it is influenced simply by geographic distance itself, as the settlers move farther away from their original homeland. In this instance, however, none of these things occurred.

The Vietnamese pioneer took with him not only his worldly possessions, but his culture and local traditions as well. When he moved south he did so not as an individual, but as just one member of an entire village or large family group moving as a whole. Rather than blending into, or being assimilated by the local cultures which the settlers encountered, or living apart from them in a peaceful relationship, the settlers violently conquered these cultures and banished their members. Nor did the settlers find any noticeably differences in either climate or geography from what they were accustomed to in the Red River Delta. We see then, no real changes occurring in Vietnamese culture as the migration continued.

But there was one new development, the growth of a conscious regional antagonism between north and south. villages in the south were essentially self contained, economically and socially. Their inhabitants enjoyed a much greater degree of freedom than their brothers in the north. The southern territories were a long way from Hanoi. Roads for transportation and communication were practically nonexistent. Those which did exist were little more than trails in poor repair. Distance, the lack of viable communications and transportation and resupply routes coupled with the strong hostility of the local villagers, all made conditions for a prolonged military campaign from the dynastic government practically impossible. But try the emperor did.

The further south the peasant went, the more independent he felt and the more resentful he became of Hanoi's attempts to exert control over him. The peasant was, as mention earlier, freer than his compatriots in the north. Even the warlords were fewer in number in the south, though, as a rule, were no less cruel. And the warlords too, resented the power in Hanoi. Warlord revolts were numerous, hopeful as they were of gaining almost total autonomy from the imperial family.

Thus we see in the south a strong resentment towards the more populous, the more centrally organized north. As the years went by, peasants and lords alike developed a regional awareness, united in mind by their common desire to be free of the dynasty's influence. making no distinction between the northern peasant the emperor's soldiers, the southerners came to perceive all northerners as aggressive and warlike, as a people who desired to militarily force themselves where they were not wanted.

In the north, the imperial court increased taxes to compensate the government's coffers for the revenues expended in the southern campaigns. More and more young men were taken from their father's farms at the point of a sword to serve in those same wars. All blamed, of course, on the lazy and rebellious subjects in the south. The inhabitants of the north then, acquired, as a region, a perception of the southerner as worthless and disloyal, who migrated south in order to avoid work and the payment of due taxes and loyalties to the royal court.

This is the situation as it existed by the early 17th century. Even at this early date, there was much to lend itself to an argument that Vietnam was, psychologically and economically, two separate countries.

These regional identities and the antagonisms between the two regions were intensified by a war between the Trinh family sitting on the dynastic throne in Hanoi, and the Nguyen family in Hue, the strongest of the south's provincial lords. Differing from the provincial uprising of the past, this conflict constituted a full blown civil war. It lasted fifty years, ending in 1674 with an agreement between the two belligerents roughly dividing Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

Neither the war nor the subsequent division had any real effect on the peasant, north or south, or on his way of life. The southern peasant felt no real attachment to the Nguyen family. But the war did serve to aggravate the already existing regional hatreds and stereotypes. Incidental, this war marked the first occurrence of western intervention in Vietnam, with Dutch merchants sending arms shipments to the Trinh family, and Portuguese merchants supplying similar shipments to the Nguyen family.

This division, as important as it was to the building of north and south regional identities, did not last long. Vietnam was again politically united in 1786 at the culmination of a war begun ten years earlier in Saigon by three brothers calling themselves the Tay-son. Upon defeating both, the Nguyen and Trinh families, the eldest brother crowned himself the Quang-Tring Emperor. Twelve years later, Quang-Tring was overthrown by Nguyen-Anh, a member of the dethroned Nguyen family, with the aid of a few hundred French troops and a French trained native Vietnamese army.

By 1883 France had conquered and occupied all of Vietnam. In the north and central regions, Tonking and Annam respectively, France established protectorates where the emperor and warlords were allowed to maintain their positions under the condition that they maintain at the same time a proper attitude and decorum toward French rule. Southern Vietnam became a direct colony, Cochinchina, under the administration of a French Governor-General.

French influence in Cochinchina had a direct and powerful impact on the lifestyle of many Vietnamese. The region prospered, and by the 1920's there was a thriving western educated middle class. Thus, when the winds of nationalism began to sweep across all of Vietnam, they took on a distinctively western flavor in Cochinchina.

Cochinchinese were allowed, under colonial law, much greater political and organizational latitude than their ethnic brothers in Tonking and Annam. native political parties were allowed and legally formed. The French promised to grant the Cochinchinese independence, measure by measure, The promise was believed, and western ideology and a spirit of cooperation became the cornerstones of the nationalist movement in the south. Envisioned was an independent Vietnam (in the south) governed by a western styled parliamentary government.

Legally, the inhabitants of Tonking and Annam were already independent, being only protectorates. It is important to note that nationalism in the south encompassed no greater an area than Cochinchina alone. For the South Vietnamese, his emerging national identity traveled no farther than the colonial boundaries.

Things were viewed quite differently in the north where an imperial family supported by a French army decreed political parties illegal and dealt harshly with potential political adversaries. Denied a legal outlet for political expression, nationalists in the north joined the forcefully expanding philosophy of communism during the 1920's, while in the freer south, nationalists adopted the democratic views of Sun Yat-sin. The gulf separating north and south was now, for all practical purposes, complete and unbridgeable, made so by the radically different methods of nationalist expression adopted by the two regions. Legally, politically and philosophically, South Vietnam was, by the end of the Second World War, a sovereign nation, distinctly different in culture and national expression from the nation of North Vietnam.

© High Speed Ventures 2011